by Rafiq Kathwari

When I was ten, Grandpa drove me on a crisp autumn evening to see geese, gulls, and ducks descend with expanded wings on Wular. “Asia’s largest freshwater lake,” he said. “They fly in disciplined formation like copper-tipped arrows across the desolation of sky, along Himalayan foothills, arcing between Mughal domes from Kashgar to Kashmir.”

I remember, a pristine mirror polished by the breeze. Geese glinted in wild ochre, gulls mottled in brown, ducks in gold. “We measure time,” Grandpa said, “by their arrival and departure.” On the foothills, encircled by grand mountains white turbans on peaks, trees their grand architecture revealed. Rushlight induced a silence I can still hear 50 years later, at dawn in March as I park

my car across an army bunker secured by barbed wire. Bold white letters on a signpost sound like a mantra: Respect All Suspect All. Soldiers on a watchtower stare at me as I step down to a lookout gazebo.

My heart sinks: strips of land, mud, and peat float on a sullied mirror as do lotus leaves. Foothills are bare, no trees only stump after stump after stump. Weeds are heaped on paddle boats. Walnut saplings line the shore. Freshly axed logs are stacked high. An odd colony of gabled homes has encroached the banks. Rubbish is strewn near a cowshed next to an outhouse. An open drain moves all things raw into the lake. Swallows perched on power lines are sharp and flat notes.

A lone signal tower is flashing red. A tubular beam of sunlight pierces the clouds, spotlighting a flight of ducks emerging from the shelter of water lilies. Flapping their wings rapidly, they ascend from a childhood sanctuary, now the world’s most militarized place. A nightingale perched on the gazebo sings, Respect all Suspect all Respect all Suspect all . . .

for Justine Hardy